I guess not many of us today actually believe in astrology as a reliable means of understanding ourselves or predicting when we are going to bump into tall dark strangers – but fascination with the night sky and the idea that the fixed stars and wandering planets and faster moving comets can somehow be read as a coded map to important events down below is certainly as old as human civilisation. And today we get to indulge in it - in church, no less! It’s also not hard to see how ancient humans looked up at the dazzling night sky and saw in its patterns a map not only for spiritual but also for terrestrial navigation. The astrologers in our story this morning from St Matthew’s Gospel are basically using the ancient world’s equivalent of GPS.
Because astrologers is what they were, according to Matthew, magi or students of the occult from the East, possibly even from Babylon which some modern historians believe was the birthplace of modern Western astrology. Today’s Feast of the Epiphany – the feast of the "aha" moment, or the sudden and momentous revelation – is not just the last of the 12 days of Christmas and the correct day for taking down plastic Christmas trees and tinsel – but the Church’s original Feast of the Incarnation, predating Christmas by at least two centuries. In the ancient world, the Greek word epiphaneia was the solemn visit of a ruler to the cities of his realm – but in the Christian tradition the word gets turned on its head - foreign ambassadors and seekers after earthly wisdom search out the newborn child to pay him homage as a ruler.
Actually, Matthew’s story of travelling kings and satellite navigation is more than a little cheeky, and politically dangerous as well. It doesn’t quite work out as straight history, of course. But modern sceptics who patiently explain that stars don’t normally travel at camel’s pace, just up ahead until we get to the right stable – or who tiresomely point out that there was no convenient comet or planetary conjunction at the right time for Matthew’s story simply miss the point of this politically explosive nativity story. Because Jesus wasn’t the only ancient personage to be called the Son of God, the Saviour of the world, not the only king whose birth according to the official stories was heralded by a star or who received grovelling homage from barbarian astrologers. The other one was Caesar Augustus, whose portrait with the words, ‘Son of God’ was doing the rounds at the time on Roman coins. So Matthew’s provocative story was a political hot potato, because it says: ‘no, the hope of the world was never the Pax Romana – the peace and stability of the Rome Empire based on Rome having the best equipped and best trained army the world had ever seen, the most sophisticated technologies of engineering and law and taxation – and for that matter the hope of the world was never the now-fading power of the United States or the rising power of China. The most powerful story in the world is not capitalism’s economic myth of endless growth or communism’s myth of economic enoughness – the hope of the world and the foundation of shalom is the reality of God with us that we see revealed in Jesus Christ’. It means neither COVID nor climate change get the last word, because history now belongs to God. This is a powerful and much-contested assertion in our own time – and so we do our own faith a disservice if we reduce Matthew’s story to a cute fairy-tale of stars and camels and birthday presents.
Because Epiphany is the ‘adults’-only’ version of the Christmas tale, and we need to listen to all its nuances.
Yes, there is a children’s version or at least a PG-rated version of Epiphany, and it goes like this. The barbarian astrologers bring precious gifts because they realise that the birth of this king changes everything, that the beauty of God revealed in the baby Jesus makes all our dreams and all our aspirations relative. The astrologer-kings lay before the baby the symbols of their own earthly importance, and so should we. What do you most treasure? What is actually most important in your own life – measured for example by how much of your time you spend thinking about it? What would it mean for you to actually hand over that part of your life to Jesus, to actually put Jesus ahead of your own most treasured dreams and possessions? What would change for you if you did? It’s not a bad message, and heaps of Epiphany sermons leave it there, so if you go home today wondering what the astrologers’ camel-trip through the desert tells you about your own priorities that is not a bad start.
But the adult version is this. There is a darker streak to Matthew’s tale of the travelling astrologers that gets lost in the tinsel, a note of fear and opposition that surrounds Jesus birth right from the start. The gift of myrrh alone should tip us off – the costly embalming spice that Nicodemus donates after Jesus’ crucifixion is also one of the gifts at his birth! This king is going to attract some powerful opposition. But it isn’t just symbolic – Herod, the local ruler to whom the magi really have to pay a quick visit on the way through if they want to avoid an international incident – Herod isn’t entirely overjoyed at their news of a new king.
And not only Herod, because the Gospel tells us ‘all Jerusalem’ is – afraid! Why? Because the one thing the powerful seek more than anything else is to stay in power. Herod and his court no longer model themselves on the kind of servant leadership that Israel’s prophets have consistently preached about. They have long since forgotten the prophetic tradition that God placed them in their positions to serve rather than be served. Herod’s main aim is to stay in power, and so he is immediately threatened by even the mere mention of another – and therefore rival – king.
But perhaps it’s also that the arrival of the magi and their quest for God’s messiah announces that the world is changing, that God has come near, and that nothing can ever be the same again. The arrival of these wandering – and wondering - astrologers signals that the reach of God’s embrace has just got wider than we ever imagined, that there is no longer "insider" and "outsider," but that all human beings are included in God’s plan for salvation. This isn’t a new theme in Judaism, in fact from the very beginning of the story God promises to bless Abraham so that he, in turn, may be a blessing for the pagan peoples he encounters. But with the arrival of foreign dignatories to worship the promised Messiah born in Bethlehem it is actually happening – all distinctions between people of different ethnicities and religions are dissolving. And that is a problem for those who see their own power slipping from their grasp.
Fear, of course, is a powerful emotion. In response to their fear, Herod, along with the ruling elites in Jerusalem, conspire to find the child and kill him. The slaughter of the innocents around Bethlehem still sends shudders down our spines even today – or at least it should - because it rings true to our own dark experiences in the world we live in today – the realities of ethnic cleansing and drone strikes and car bombings and massacres of children in their classrooms – all products of fear and the demonic human impulse to enact fantasies of power.
The dreadful slaughter of the innocents is a kind of prequel in Matthew’s story, a dark reminder of the future opposition that Jesus’ testimony to the loving purposes of God will attract. A reminder that if Jesus’ life begins with joy and hope it will end encircled by the fear that is always the result of exposing the contradictions between human insecurity and divine love.
The adult version of Matthew’s nativity moves - all too quickly - from the glad moment of the adoration and gifts of the magi to a darker, more ambivalent world of political intrigue, deception, and fear-induced violence. But if Matthew’s version is more sober, it is also more realistic and ultimately liberating. Because we also live in a world riddled by fear. In Matthew’s story of the visit of the magi – and the subsequent slaughter of the innocents – holds up a disturbing mirror of the world as it is – and of ourselves as we are.
And this is what is at the heart of Matthew’s darker, grown-up story of the nativity: the promise that it is precisely this world that God comes to, this world so diminished by fear that God loves, this gaping need that we have that God remedies. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, the living, breathing, and vulnerable promise that God chose to come live and die for us, as we are, so that in Christ’s resurrection we, too might experience newness of life. And if Jesus really is a king, then this king offers the possibility of a new version and the possibility of a different ending to the human story. If Jesus really is God with us and God for us then there is hope even in our darkest circumstances.
So - what gifts do we have that we can lay before the child of Bethlehem? Not just the gold and the frankincense – what burden of myrrh do we bring? It’s a good question, isn’t it, for the first week of a new year in which we are all too uncomfortably aware that the burdens of the year past are not so easily laid down. But God with us in the shadow of poverty and oppression in Bethlehem is also our hope in 2021 - and that’s the good news.